Sexual equality in sport. It’s a perennially thorny topic, and one that inevitably demands a different approach across different sports. In some cases, it is about playing on equal terms. In horse racing and pool, to name two examples at different ends of the spectrum, women have striven to achieve equal ranking with the men and they’ve done so with success.
In other cases, there are physical reasons why separate men’s and women’s leagues make sense. These are generally sports where outright physical strength comes to the fore, such as in boxing, tennis or athletics. Here, the challenge has always been for the women’s game to achieve the same funding and recognition as the men’s.
Motorsport most certainly falls into the former category. Yet the approach towards women drivers at the elite level has varied dramatically across different formats and in different countries. Now, however, a new type of motor racing for the 21st century could be adopting the perfect approach.
Women in motorsport – a little background
First things first, readers in the US are liable to wonder what all the fuss is about. Shirley Muldowney, Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher are three names that have competed at the highest level in Nascar and drag racing over the past three decades. For the teams, the fans and the web-based companies providing sports book services and setting the odds on who would win, the fact that they were women was of zero significance. That, surely, is the shape that equality in sport should take. However, even in the enlightened USA, male drivers significantly outnumber the women.
In other types of motorsport, a different approach is taken to try to get more female professionals out on the track and to raise their profile. Formula One is seen as the global pinnacle of the sport, so makes an interesting yardstick. Incredibly, the first female F1 driver took to the starting grid in the testosterone fueled 1950s. Maria Teresa de Filippis made her F1 debut in the Belgian Grand Prix of 1958 and competed in a total of seven races.
Yet there has been just one other female F1 driver in the intervening years, and that was Lella Lombardi, who contested 17 races in the mid 1970s, garnering just half a World Championship point. Since then, there have been female development drivers, most notably Susie Wolff, who worked with Williams for several years before retiring in 2015, but none have taken to the grid.
F1 has attempted to redress the balance with the introduction of the W-series last year. The women’s F1 series has received widespread media attention and has brought names like Jamie Chadwick and Alice Powell to the fore. There is already talk of 21-year-old Chadwick having a potential future in F1. But still, this approach means that for a woman to succeed at the highest level, she must first conquer the W-series in order to be given the opportunity to take on the men.
A step forward in the electronic age
There’s an old joke that it is often difficult to differentiate the smell of gasoline fumes and testosterone in motor racing. It’s clear that the car world is rapidly moving on from the internal combustion engine and racing will inevitably follow a similar path into the realm of electric vehicles.
Formula E has now been running for five years and has had three female drivers, although only Simona de Silvestro drove for a full season. But a new type of EV racing is set to include male and female drivers on completely equal terms.
The inaugural Extreme E off-road racing series will feature 10 one-car squads of two drivers, one male and one female. Each race will comprise two laps of a challenging course, with the driver and co-driver driving one lap each.
The series will take in courses in some of the most challenging places on earth, including Nepal, Greenland and Saudi Arabia. CEO and founder Alexander Agag said: “We are striving for equality, and this sporting format is the truest reflection of that goal. Everybody will race together and the most effective combination of drivers, team, engineer and car will rise to the top.”
The Extreme E series is scheduled to commence in January 2021.